Why You Shouldn’t Panic if Your Kid Has a Tick Bite

It’s every mom’s nightmare: Your kid comes inside after playing outside and you spot a weird spot on his neck. Is that a tick? Was he bitten? Do you need to call the doctor? How do you get it off? Those are just a few of the questions that are probably racing through any parent’s mind at that moment. So, we asked the experts to give you all the answers about ticks and Lyme disease.

What can you do to avoid getting bitten by a tick?

Before you head into the great outdoors, there are a few things to know about ticks to reduce the odds that you might get bitten. First, learn where you can expect them. “Ticks live in grassy, brushy, or wooded areas, or even on animals,” says David Cutler, MD, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. “Spending time outside walking your dog, camping, gardening, or hunting could bring you in close contact with ticks. Many people get ticks in their own yard or neighborhood. Tick exposure can occur year-round, but ticks are most active during warmer months, from April to September.”

Using an insect repellant can go a long way. Always use one registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone. The EPA’s search tool can help you find the right one for your family, and always be sure to follow the instructions. Never use insect repellent on babies younger than 2 months old or products containing OLE or PMD on children under 3 years old.

You can treat clothing, booths and camping gear with products containing 0.5% permethrin, an alternative to DEET, which lasts through several washings. When you’re hiking, be sure to walk in the center of trails and avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter.

What is the proper way to do a tick check?

“Immediately do a full-body check for ticks, and have your child take a shower or bath after coming inside to help eliminate ticks before they bite,” says Dean Jacobs, M.D., F.A.A.P., board certified pediatrician at MemorialCare Medical Group in Santa Ana, CA. “Putting dry clothes in a dryer for at least 10 minutes on high heat, or up to 60 minutes on high heat if the clothes were wet, also helps kill ticks. Ticks love to hide on kids in and around their hair and their ears, under their arms, near their groin, between their legs and behind their knees, and around their waist. Ticks frequently prefer areas that are warm and damp. But some of their favorite hiding spots can be even tougher to find. Be sure to check in your child’s belly button, on their clothing, and don’t forget to also check your dog who came on the hike with you.”

What should I do if my kid has a tick?

“If you find a tick on your child, do not panic,” Jacobs says. “If the tick is not attached to the skin and is not engorged, then it hasn’t bitten your child and you don’t need to worry. Even if it has bitten though, most tick bites do not end up spreading any disease at all, and the risk of your child getting Lyme disease is still very, very low.”

Before removing it, take in the details of the tick. Note the color of the tick, take a high-resolution photo of it, and plan to try to keep the tick once it’s removed, as that information could help identify what type of tick it is.

How do I remove a tick?

In order to do it right, Jacobs recommends following these specific directions: Try covering the tick for at least 30 seconds with a cotton ball that has been soaked in liquid soap. Sometimes the tick will just stick to the cotton ball when you lift it away. If this fails, next hold clean, sterilized fine-tipped tweezers parallel to the skin, and use the tweezers to grab the tick on its head as close to the skin as possible. Be careful not to grasp or squeeze the tick’s body. Pull the tick straight upward away from the skin without twisting or smashing it, until the tick releases its grasp. If the tick is not swollen and if it is tiny, instead it can be scraped off with the edge of a credit card. In either case, if any part of the tick breaks off in the skin, clean the skin with rubbing alcohol, and remove any large pieces with the sterilized tweezers. Once you remove the tick, wash your child’s wound with soap and water, and apply a topical antibiotic ointment. If there is a small bump or inflamed area from the bite, it usually starts to improve and go away within about two days. Do not use petroleum jelly, rubbing alcohol, nail polish, heat, or cold on the tick to get it to release, as that could make things worse.

What are the odds that my kid will get Lyme disease?

“The risk of your child getting Lyme disease is still less than 2%, and some statistics show that risk to be as low as 1.2%, even in prevalent areas,” Jacobs says. “Getting Lyme disease also depends on what type of tick it was, how long the tick was attached, and even your location and the time of year matter. It’s specifically the deer tick, also known as Ixodes, that causes Lyme disease. It is thought to have to be attached and feeding for at least 36 hours before transmitting the infection. Deer ticks are brown in color and initially about the size of a pencil point, however they become engorged and much larger as they feed. Deer ticks that carry Lyme disease are most typically found in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states from Maine to Virginia, in the Midwest states bordering the Great Lakes, and in northern California. Lyme disease is most often transmitted in the late spring and early summer, and less often after that through the late fall.

When should I take my child to the doctor?

You should seek medical attention right away if you can’t remove the tick yourself, if the tick was swollen, or was attached for at least 36 hours. “If you develop a rash or fever within several weeks of removing a tick, see your doctor,” Cutler says. “Be sure to tell the doctor about your recent tick bite, when the bite occurred, and where you most likely acquired the tick.” Other times you should see the doc after a tick bite include if your child has facial weakness or droopiness, neck pain or stiffness, or looks sick. When in doubt, it’s always best to play it safe and make an appointment with your pediatrician.

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